On Women, War, and Education

Gijsbertus Voetius (1589-1676) was one of the leading Dutch Reformed theologians of the 17th century; one of his lesser known works is his fascinating treatise “Concerning Women”, in which he puts forward what is essentially a theology of womanhood, with a wide range of practical applications. For those who might think women in military service is a recent issue, Voetius answers the question “whether it is fitting for a woman to serve as a soldier and take part in expeditions of war, sieges, assaults, battles, and attacks,” noting that in Judges 4 Deborah even undertook an expedition with Barak. Voetius considers that there are various relations of women to war: for a queen or princess to be called to wage war is legitimate, and separate from the issue of engagement in actual military service. He goes on to state:

We distinguish: it is not becoming nor is it suitable for preserving modesty and chastity if women pass their time within the eyesight of men; they are mixed with men by day and night on stations, vigils, clandestine attacks, ambushes, battles, when they do such things with men. Nevertheless we do not disapprove if in a case of extreme necessity of the state and the lack of men they should repel and turn back an attacking enemy with hurled rocks, firebrands smeared with pitch, and other instruments; further if they should aid the soldiers by gathering rocks, and carrying gunpowder, ammunition, arms, and other weapons necessary for defense or offense. At the year long siege of Harlem in the Dutch war and also in the year long siege of Maastricht, women performed extraordinary military service. As a result, a great many women were killed when the Spanish took Maastricht. And this is the opinion of Martyr [Peter Martyr Vermigli] in his Loci, classis 4, chap. 16, para 13…

From discussing the question of women and war, Voetius turns to women and education. Answering the question “whether the studies of wisdom and of letters are fitting for women” in the affirmative, he states that he needs apply “no arguments except those which the most noble and learned maiden Anna Maria van Schurman collected in 1638,” and then goes on to list a number of literary Protestant women of the Reformation and post-Reformation age.

Anna van Schurman’s life (1607-1678), and the particular writing Voetius references, A Practical Problem: Whether the Study of Letters is Fitting for a Christian Woman, are a fascinating Dutch post-Reformation story — one we’ll summarize in a coming post.